If there’s one thing we could use now in our current state of cultural cannibalism, it’s the ability to do a bit less “lumping.”
(And, no, that’s not a reference to your mashed potato preferences.)
The term derives from Darwin, yet while Darwin used it biologically, Alan Jacobs—Christian author and English Lit professor—uses it to write (here) about our current state of public discourse.
Hint: it’s bad.
We live now, says Jacobs, in the golden age of “lumpers”—as evidenced by our tendency to reduce all those with whom we disagree to a monolithic and dismissive hashtag.
On the one hand, some labels are necessary for human communication, and we can’t escape the use of shorthand. But as Jacobs notes, when we lump and label indiscriminately, we fail to actually think (not to mention “see” and “hear” each other).
In the words of George Orwell, in his essay: “Politics and the English Language”
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases […] one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.
And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved…
Thank God Orwell never lived to see the land of Twitter.
A CELEBRATION OF “SPLITTING”
But if lumping is a problem under certain circumstances, what is the alternative?
Jacobs calls it “splitting”—and he finds a beautiful example in a pioneer of women’s higher education: Dorothy Sayers (1893 – 1957).
Sayers was a committed Christian, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, a brilliant writer of both fiction and nonfiction, and a friend of C.S. Lewis.
She was also a feminist, in the best sense of the word—desiring equality of opportunity for men and women.
In her view:
What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.
Her point is not that it is bad to belong to a particular group—be it gendered, racial, or religious. Nor is she claiming that such differences are mere “social constructs.” (She was not a so-called postmodernist.)
On the contrary, our places of belonging are important, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist (Re: the ridiculous if well-intentioned: “I don’t see [skin] color.” Seriously; unless you have macular degeneration, don’t say that.)
It’s not wrong to recognize our differences and groupings. But when we “lump” all members of a set together in dismissive ways, we often say things that erase one’s individual humanity.
Thus our Twitter and Facebook posts end up as some version of the following:
“God” (used either as curse-word or a prayer), “thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this [Liberal, Conservative, secular, fundamentalist, millennial, baby-boomer, Muslim, Trumpist, Social Justice Warrior].”
Depending on one’s in-group, the words within the brackets will vary, yet the commonality resides in a self-righteous “lumping” under dismissive labels that reduce the shared humanity of others.
Hence the title of Sayers’ provocative essay: “Are women human?” (here)
Now my favorite quote.
Drawing on her own experience as one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford, she writes:
When the pioneers of university training for women demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once: “Why should women want to know about Aristotle?”
The answer is not that all women would be better for knowing about Aristotle […] but simply: “What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle.
I, eccentric individual that I am […] and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him
As Jacobs’ notes, there is a kind of “blessed selfishness to this cry.” It is a celebration of the “eccentric individual” who doesn’t give a rip whether Aristotle is perceived as useful for her “class”!
In the words of the Roman poet Terence: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.”
Or as Jacobs concludes: “Let a billion eccentric individuals flourish.”
See here for Alan Jacob’s fantastic book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds – from which much of this post was proudly stolen…